As we endure the torrent of books of varying quality recalling the events in Europe of a century ago, we are blessed with others of exceptional quality that examine the peril that Britain was in two centuries ago. This year may be about the memories of Sarajevo in 1914 and the cataclysm that followed, but in 1814 Europe was already wearied by war, its dynamics were changing and a century of relative calm in Britain was about to be ushered in by the British triumph at Waterloo in June 1815 and the final defeat of Napoleon.
These three works of exemplary scholarship tell different aspects of the story. Citizen Emperor is the second volume of Philip Dwyer’s biography of the Corsican general and deals with his years of power between 1799 and the defeat at Waterloo. Rory Muir’s life of Wellington is the first of two volumes, finishing on the eve of Waterloo—the ultimate cliffhanger – and will be followed by a second volume to mark the bicentenary of the battle and also covering the remainder of Wellington’s life as a politician and statesman. Roger Knight’s work is of less conventional form but is perhaps the most intriguing of the three: he examines not the military heroics that brought Napoleon to his knees but the way in which Britain prepared for the final onslaught against him. Although both the biographies clarify men whose realities have been deeply obscured by myths and legends, Knight’s work is truly ground-breaking in showing how Britain, a country that had prided itself on the encouragement of individualism, made a collective effort for victory that was not seen again in such intensity until 1940.
Knight was deputy director of the National Maritime Museum and wrote a magisterial life of Nelson for his bicentenary in 2005. In Britain Against Napoleon he describes the tension between a France that had the strongest army in Europe and a Britain with the strongest navy. So long as the English Channel belonged to the Royal Navy there was nothing to fear; but an invasion would leave the country at the mercy of the French, a land where revolution was still smouldering.
The threat lasted from 1793 until 1815, with only brief interruptions. The society that sought to resist it was no tyranny and was therefore subject to changes of government. England was outnumbered and, it feared, could be outgunned. The principal commodity needed to counter the threat was not so much manpower as money, raised by the City of London and used to stoke the fires of the Industrial Revolution to make weaponry and ships. Knight argues that several times between 1796 and 1798, and again in the years after 1807, Britain came close to being unable to afford to fight the war because of financial exhaustion and sometimes lacked the focus to fight it because of political upheaval—not least in 1812 when the only British prime minister to have been assassinated, Spencer Perceval, lost his life for reasons unconnected with the international emergency.
Britain was fortunate that in the late 1780s Pitt the Younger had made it his business to renew and refresh an army diminished by defeat in the war against America. By the time war broke out, the navy was at the peak of its power, contrasting with a French fleet in poor repair, riddled with mutinies and largely in port. By 1793 he had also sought to improve domestic and international communications for the purpose of economic efficiency, but this infrastructure would also help mobilise the war effort as part of this improvement was focused on the Post Office. All this meant that when war came, actions in the Baltic and the Iberian peninsula could be conducted smoothly because of Britain’s command of the ocean and well-organised supply lines.
There were two means of dealing with manpower shortages. Men were impressed (or press-ganged) for the navy, which caused particular bouts of civil unrest in the mid-1790s; and large numbers of foreign mercenaries were signed up to the army—“Russians, Poles, Germans, Italians ... we had one Cinghalese,” an officer of the 60th Regiment noted in 1799. There were also French who changed sides, loyalties being fluid in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. The militia was beefed up but at times it was hard to provision it; and when shortages caused the price of food to rise in the mid-1790s, the soldiery took part enthusiastically in the food riots that followed.
The organisation of war rested first and foremost with a civil service that Knight describes as “patchwork” in the 1790s: some of it efficient, other parts “useless”. As the war went on, however, the offices of transport, customs and excise and agriculture sharpened up their acts, ensuring revenue was raised, people were fed and supplies and men moved to where they needed to be. To suppress restiveness at home, the government also ensured the populace had food; and to assist the war effort, British intelligence operations were developed and expanded.
Soldiers and sailors were efficiently fed, even if not very well. Knight quotes a sailor in 1812 telling his wife that the beef that came in their rations had been in salt for seven years. Knight also gives some astonishing facts about the provisioning of the services during expedition to fight the French in the West Indies in 1801. This required 83,428 tons of biscuits, and it was quite usual for 30 head of live cattle to be carried on the main gundeck of a ship as it sailed across the Atlantic.
The effort not just of organisation but of keeping the country together in the face of mortal peril, was too much for Pitt. His surgeon wrote that Pitt “died of old age at forty-six, as much as if he had been ninety”. Although his death ushered in a period of instability, the Duke of Portland’s administration was confident enough to commit itself to helping drive the French out of the Iberian peninsula in 1808, which required vast expense and another enormous logistical effort. The threat of invasion at home had not diminished either: Martello towers were put up around the coast, dockyards built and modernised, volunteer battalions formed. There was a huge—but temporary—expansion in the civil service to keep on top of so many demands.
In the private sector, the industries supplying the army and navy made what Knight calls “spectacular advances” during the war. The warship-building business went into overdrive, so much so that supplies of timber became short; between 1803 and 1815, 84 per cent of ships were built in private as opposed to royal dockyards. This caused towns such as Great Yarmouth to become rich out of the war. Although taxation rose to pay for all this, so too, thanks to the good office of the City, did borrowing. High import duties on goods from the East Indies also helped. In 1811 total government expenditure was £85m, just over half of it (£43m) going on army, navy and ordnance. Luckily for the British, Napoleon’s decision to overstretch himself in Russia was the beginning of the end for him, and Britain’s resources lasted until total victory—with the country’s economy and mercantile life modernised as a by-product.
Looking at all this from the defeated emperor’s perspective, Philip Dwyer, in a book of meticulous research and beautifully detailed descriptions of Napoleon’s military adventures, brings home the full horrific cost of the march on Russia. With 300,000 Russians dead defending their homeland, he reckons a million died between June 1812 and February 1813, with “the remnants of the army continuing to die from wounds, disease, malnutrition and exhaustion”. It was the near-culmination of a glorious career that had begun with a coup d’etat in 1799, the end of the French Revolution, the coronation of an emperor and the formation of a dynasty—placed on what was modestly called “the first throne of the universe” – and the triumph of Austerlitz. Dwyer points out that this battle, six weeks after Trafalgar, helped “obliterate” the memory of that defeat, not least because news of Nelson’s victory was not released until after Napoleon’s.
Yet it was a short passage from the disaster in Russia seven years later to Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 and his confinement on Elba, whence he escaped under the noses of the Royal Navy in February 1815, believing France wanted him back. Dwyer depicts his subject as a gambler: Napoleon is said to have pronounced “the die is cast” as his ship sailed off to the mainland.
His book ends with a suitably poetic account of the defeated emperor, a month after Waterloo, turning up at HMS Bellerophon and putting himself under the protection of the British; as the ship departs from the Brittany coast, it is his last sight of France, with St Helena and the arsenic-laden wallpaper awaiting him.
Although Rory Muir’s first volume on Wellington ends before the great battle, it is, like Dwyer’s biography, extensively researched and anchored in fact, and gives an invaluable picture of the duke in his early years that will be unfamiliar to many who know only of his military exploits. Muir has researched his subject for 30 years and it shows. He goes into great detail about the peninsular war, which was fought over control of the Iberian peninsula, but is also revelatory about his subject’s career in India between 1796 and 1805.
Wellington returned from India, aged just 35 and already a major-general and a knight. In dealing with His Majesty’s enemies on the subcontinent, he had shown himself cool-headed, intelligent and a good tactician who was developing into a decent strategist. One senses from Muir’s account that what Arthur Wellesley—as he then was—learned out there were the skills that would lead him to be recognised within a few years as the finest soldier in the army. As Muir makes clear, he was helped in his rise by the appointment of his brother Richard, the Earl of Mornington, as governor-general soon after his arrival there. Once Wellesley moved centre-stage, he never left it.
To Muir, whose second volume—to judge by his first—cannot come soon enough, we are especially indebted for one useful bit of myth-busting. Wellington never said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton: the words were put into his mouth by a French journalist, Charles de Montalembert, after the duke’s death. Wellington hated Eton and lasted only three years there before his mother was advised that the boy would come to very little and he should be educated elsewhere. It sounds all too similar to Winston Churchill at Harrow a century later and provokes further thoughts on the real seeds of, and the best training for, greatness.
Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail and his books include High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain.
This piece first appeared on newstatesman.com.